"Eyes up", is an expression ingrained in nearly every rider's mind, but when San Diego based dressage trainer Joseph Newcomb needs to improve his rides - he often looks to the ground. Newcomb is renowned for utilizing groundwork to not only train his horses piaffe and passage, but to help with de-spooking, sharpening them to the aids, and eventually building engagement. The San Diegan's reputation as 'The In Hand Guy' has made him a popular clinician and his series of instructional YouTube videos have received thousands of viewers.
Newcomb's interest in groundwork first blossomed when he took an early departure from dressage to experience the western world.
"I started riding western and worked a bit with a natural horsemanship trainer who showed me how to work with problem horses. So I actually started doing a lot of groundwork there and got back into dressage later on and carried that groundwork and problem solving into learning more about the piaffe and passage training in hand" explains Newcomb.
As a resident trainer at Steffen Peter's barn, Arroyo Del Mar, Newcomb has been fortunate to fine tune his in hand skills with help from some of dressage's best trainers.
"I've been at Steffen's now six years and there's some people like Morten Thomsen that visit (in hand clinician from Denmark) so I got to spend some time with him and also Steffen is quite good in hand as well, though not very many people know that side of him."
Today, Newcomb believes all of his dressage horses benefit from an approach to groundwork that blends the best of natural horsemanship and traditional in hand dressage training into one fluid philosophy.
"I don't think of natural horsemanship and in hand work and dressage training as totally separate - I think it as this whole unit of teaching a horse, and to the horses there's no separation - it's all one thing to them," says Newcomb.
What appeals to him most about these training methods is how effectively he's able to use them to communicative with his horses.
"When I think of natural horsemanship I think of working with a horse's mind instead of just physically forcing them to do what I want them to do. So I'm trying to train them to set them up to find it, and use pressure and relief to help explain to the horse what I want."
Newcomb, who actively competes in dressage in addition to specializing as an in hand instructor, views groundwork as a training tool to help shape the dressage horse as whole.
"I think there's so much benefit from doing the groundwork and so much carry over between the groundwork and under saddle. And I don't just think of it as piaffe/passage training - I think that's actually a big mistake. If people think of it as just piaffe and passage training, they miss the foundation beneath that. With piaffe/passage training that's really the top aspect of some of the most difficult movements in dressage."
In fact, the greatest benefit that riders may elicit from groundwork training is an acute sharpness to aids both on the ground and in the saddle. By widening the channel of communication with one's horse, Newcomb believes that the result is an overall more alert, attuned, and presumably happy animal.
"I rode with Carl Hester this last year and it was interesting listening to him because he talked about driving horses and how you don't have your seat so all of the sudden so you really have to rely on the feeling in rein, and you really have to explain to the horse using that."
In Newcomb's experience, effectively communicating with horses involves setting up conditions that inspire learning.
"One of my favorite quotes is 'reward the smallest change, and the slightest try', and that's become a big piece of my philosophy. And that's a little different from 'make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy'."
Learning new behaviors can be inherently stressful for horses, so creating a positive learning environment is essential to progress. In particular, Newcomb suggests that learning piaffe and passage can be one of the most perplexing movements for horses to pick up, and approaching the lesson with sensitivity is paramount.
"One thing that's difficult about it is that you need the horse give you a lot of energy in a very small space. So you're trying to get them to put out a lot of energy in terms of jogging, basically, and get them to give you that without going forward which is really counterintuitive for the horse. Because of this unnatural mentality when you try to teach it you get tension. "
In order to diffuse that tension Newcomb suggests rebalancing a horse's confidence and mental state by rotating easy commands throughout your training session.
"The way I think of this is in a big circle, so I ask my horse to do something more difficult and then I go back to my basic exercises. Then I push again, ask my horse to do something more difficult, and as they get tense then I go back to basic exercises. What I don't want to do is get stuck drilling."
Instead, Newcomb encourages trainers to facilitate learning by building a pattern of success, and regularly intermixing in hand work into everyday activities.
"I think you can do a little bit each day, even some things like leg lifting, lifting and holding the legs in reaction to touching them. Some horses I do that with just in the cross ties before I get on them."
For people wanting to start in hand work with their dressage horses, Newcomb urges them to begin with the very basics.
"It's really important that the beginning of in hand work isn't just trying to get piaffe and passage, for me it really starts with ground manners. If you're leading the horse to turnout and if your horse is running over you, you need to reshape that so that they rate with you. Get your horse to really feel like your shadow on the ground so that if you go fast they come along, or if you slow, they slow down. You shouldn't be having to pull on them or drag them along to make that happen."
All too often Newcomb says he runs across horses whose level of training under saddle indicates that they are ready to begin learning piaffe and passage, but that horse will lack a fundamental basis in groundwork.
"Start out working on - can I do halt -trot, and trot-halt transitions on the ground? You'd be surprised from teaching the piaffe/passage clinics that a lot of people struggle with this. If I ask someone with their horse to show me a trot-halt transition, they'll kind of trot forward and the horse will be dragging behind. If you can't do a trot-halt transition on the ground, then you don't really have any business trying to get the piaffe on the ground yet."
According to Newcomb, teaching a horse to be attentive to cues on the ground can help riders to foster respect that is essential for training down the road.
"These transitions of making them quick to the aids and staying with you on the ground - that's going to help you in that when you add energy to the horse they aren't going to try to run over you, or run through you."
A horse that is educated in groundwork is a willing pupil, both in hand and under saddle. Just as with riding, Newcomb encourages people to view in hand training as a process that starts with creating an attentive partner in a horse, and ends with the pinnacle movements of Grand Prix. Regardless of what stage of training a horse may be at Newcomb insists there is value in each step.
Quite simlpy, "You have to think of it all as groundwork and building on the basics to help you get to the piaffe and passage."
To hear to the entire conversation with Joseph Newcomb listen to the podcast below, find it under Dressage Talk in iTunes, or download it directly here.